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Divorce, Remarriage, & Blessing Same-Sex Couples


The New Zealand Anglican Church may not have followed the correct procedure in 1970 to allow clergy to marry divorcees. The Church did not follow the requirements of its own Act of Parliament. So, for the last half century, clergy marrying divorced people may have done so without fundamental authorisation.

If you are not interested in the (possibly-esoteric) internal workings of NZ Anglicanism, come back here tomorrow, and read about something of more general interest in tomorrow’s post. Go and walk out in nature; have a coffee; talk to a friend. But if you are interested, pull up a chair and take time to understand my discovery. In all the procrastinating debating, about what to do about homosexuals in the Church, my discovery, that it is actually heterosexuals who (in far larger numbers) are in breach of our own agreements, must be one of the more fascinating moments.

Until 1970, the doctrine of New Zealand’s Anglican Church was that marriage was between a man and a woman united for life. The Church can change its doctrine. It can do so by a complex process (it followed this process, for example, when it decided to ordain women). The change is enacted by adding or altering a ‘formulary’ (an agreed teaching and/or practice of the Church). Described simply, the process (often nicknamed “the twice-round” process) requires passing at General Synod Te Hinota Whanui (GSTHW); then by a majority of dioceses and hui amorangi; followed by a 2/3 majority at a newly-elected GSTHW; and finally a year’s wait for anyone to make an appeal.

Currently, the Church is discussing changing doctrine – the focus is on the first half of the marriage doctrine mentioned above: “between a man and a woman.” GSTHW will debate blessing the civil marriage of same-sex couples, and doing so by a new formulary.

But in 1970 the Church changed the second half of the marriage doctrine, the “united for life” part. It changed it to “intention to abide by the lifelong intention of the proposed marriage”. When I write that the Church changed its doctrine in 1970, it actually did no such thing. It did not follow the process required by our own procedures to make such a change. General Synod should have initiated the normal process as outlined by the Act, just as it was doing with many other changes in the Church. It did not. It simply enacted a canon (merely a rule, which only requires a majority vote at one sitting of General Synod).

So on our horizon now is the fascinating possibility that we can bless committed same-sex couples but are not able to officiate at weddings of heterosexuals who are divorced.

Publicly and privately I have been castigated that I am not clear enough that these are blog posts with my own opinions, and that I don’t check my facts first. So, read my lips: this is a blog post – what I write on this site, unless otherwise credited, is the result of my own research and expresses my own positions and ideas. As for the facts – you are adults; this is the internet; if you are unsure, check out the facts for yourself. I regularly provide sources and links to help you with that.

In case readers are unclear about the consequences of my discovery presented here, let me also clarify: all marriages officiated by Anglican clergy are legal marriages. There is no question of the legality of marriages of couples where one is divorced (or where both are). The State recognises clergy as marriage celebrants, and the State recognises the ability to officiate at marriages where someone is divorced. The State would, similarly, recognise the marriages of same-sex couples who were married by Anglican clergy.

Thinking This Through

In our Canons (2.9) there is permission for clergy (if their conscience allows) to marry a couple where one is divorced (or both are). I have long suggested this as a model that could be applied to blessing committed same-sex couples. The usual response from naysayers is: “two wrongs don’t make a right.” My frustration is that (correct me!) no one has even put a motion to revisit our marrying divorcees. This gives me the inevitable intuition that it is not the “wrongness” that is the issue for such people, but that, for them, there is something particular about homosexuality.

Regulars here know I see issues with the proposed blessing of civil marriages. It would be a formulary limited by a canon:

  • We could end up with a belief no one could put into practice;
  • The Church will not regard any civil marriage as “a rightly-ordered relationship” until it is blessed (currently a marriage is seen as “rightly-ordered” whoever has officiated);
  • People holding a bishop’s licence could lose that (and with it their livelihood) if they are civilly married and are in a diocese where one cannot bless such a marriage…etc…

As you know, I was surprised that a canon could limit a formulary. There is, as far as I know, no written agreement that this can be the case. There is only the Marriage Canon that has, offline, been presented to me as an (the only?) example of a canon limiting a formulary. And in that canon two issues leap out.

Firstly the canon claims (2.6) that

The minister shall use one of the marriage services or a composite of the required elements of the authorised services provided in the Formularies of the Church.

That you can cut-and-paste between rites is not a limitation of a formulary. It alters the formulary. Altering a formulary cannot be done by a canon (a majority vote at one sitting of GSTHW); it must be done by the “twice-round” process of the 1928 Act. 2.6 in the Marriage Canon cannot effect what it purports to allow.

Secondly (2.9):

The marriage service of a person who has been divorced may be conducted by a minister even though the other party to the prior marriage is still living.

In 1968, General Synod debated a Bill to “enact a canon to provide for the marriage in certain circumstances of divorced persons.” It did not pass the Third Reading and was held over to the next session (1970). Archbishop Norman Lesser, in his President’s Address to the 1968 General Synod, expressed grave reservations, and at one point said,

what the Western Catholic Church [of which the Archbishop saw this Church as a part] has never countenanced is the taking of a new partner while the former one is living. This is not a refusal by the Church to dispense from the marriage vows. It is the belief that those vows, of a sacramental nature, resulted in a God-given relationship as permanent as a relationship between parent and child… many will urge [“permitting the ‘remarriage’ of divorced persons”] be adopted in the name of compassion. It is not a lack of compassion but a different view of the nature of things as God has created them – of what a marriage is, which is the heart of a contrary position.

The point is, lest the wood be lost for the trees, that this is not a thread debating whether Christians can marry after divorce. This is about the way that this Church dealt with the conviction that this is possible. After some further discussions at diocesan level, General Synod in 1970 did not proceed to alter the marriage doctrine by the means required of the Church under the Act. It merely, inappropriately, enacted a canon by a simple majority at one sitting.

Less than two years ago, GSTHW finally acknowledged that our Church has been acting inconsistently with the 1928 Act and in a way that lacked fundamental authorisation in the first place. I suggest that clergy marrying couples of which at least one is divorced may need to be revisited, and, with face-saving clauses (such as “whereas doubts have been introduced that…”), the Church may need to follow our agreed processes with heterosexuals as rigorously as with homosexuals.

Which, as a conclusion of this post, brings me to a refrain of mine: why has SO much energy been expended on whether committed same-sex couples may be blessed (theological, canonical, legal – with years of meetings, talks, Hermeneutic Hui, petitions, and papers) when the majority issue, blessing a post-divorce union of heterosexuals, has received comparatively scant examination? You don’t need to tell me or anyone else the answer to that question – but at least be honest with yourself.

This post, of course, is not the first time that this website has drawn the Church’s attention to not following proper processes and resulting in confused and confusing liturgical agreements. If you appreciated this post, do remember to like the liturgy facebook page, use the RSS feed, and sign up for a not-very-often email, …

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25 thoughts on “Divorce, Remarriage, & Blessing Same-Sex Couples”

  1. A question we could ask, Bosco, is whether there would be much energy in resisting a change back to the Lesser position. I for one am so convinced by your arguments against the remarrying of divorced persons (while original partner is still living) that I would not resist such a change. It would refocus our minds on the teaching of Jesus.

    In turn, the energy being expended resisting change away from the teaching of the Bible (and understood as endorsed by Jesus) that marriage is between a man and a woman, might be explained by the fact that it is a great change, that a number of energy expenders do not think ought to happen.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Peter.

      I need to re-emphasise one point which may be unclear in your comment: there is no “change back.”

      We, as a Church, have not followed our own agreed processes to enable clergy to officiate at unions of heterosexuals where one or both were married and a partner is still alive. So there is no question of “resisting a change back”, as “back” is where we still actually are.

      Those in favour of allowing clergy to officiate at such unions of heterosexuals need to follow the twice-round process in the same manner as those are doing who are in favour of allowing clergy to officiate at unions of homosexuals. As I indicated, we may have authority to do the latter before we are allowed to do the former.

      That clergy have been already officiating at such unions (both heterosexual and homosexual, as we both know, and for half a century in the case of the heterosexuals) does not alter the official position of our Church presented in my post.

      Easter Season Blessings.

  2. Hi Bosco
    I think we could go back to the position where we are not doing something unconstitutionally/illegally which we currently think we are doing constitutionally/illegally.

    1. Thanks, Peter. Our Church has always had clergy acting against the Church agreements they have promised and signed to hold to. They do this either in ignorance or on purpose. Blessings.

  3. Hmmm. So to extend the pondering … the implications for those members of the clergy who are divorced and remarried while the former spouse is still living, in terms of the whole argument around “right relationships” would be?
    Panadol anyone??

    1. Yes, Brian. It’s only been a day since I spotted the content of this post, and I cannot yet see how deep the rabbit hole goes. Certainly those clergy who are divorced and remarried (or have officiated at such weddings) and have been arguing against blessing committed same-sex couples have clearly cut themselves with their own sword. Easter Season Blessings.

  4. Mark Aitchison

    Interesting! Given this revelation, should there be an immediate halt to NZ Anglican weddings where one or more partners (or the celebrant themselves?) have been divorced, until it is all sorted out?

    Or is it better to not tell anyone, so they are only guilty of breaking church agreements unknowingly?? :-}

    1. Thanks, Mark….

      As I’ve indicated, I have only just discovered this a day ago – so, like many others, I am still trying to get my head around it.

      I think my concluding point might be a way into this: How would people react if this was about homosexuals rather than about heterosexuals? It was the constant debating with those who are firmly against blessing committed same-sex couples that has led, step by step, to the discovery in today’s post. No one seemed to have noticed that the conservative argument was like a trap in which they could fall themselves (Psalm 57:6; Proverbs 26:27).

      Last meeting of General Synod Te Hinota Whanui, there was acknowledgement of material in the canons inconsistent with the Act and lacking fundamental authorisation. As well as the acknowledgement, those parts were removed from the canons. So the first step, surely, is to do the same with 2.6 and 2.9 of the Marriage canon. These should be removed at the meeting of GSTHW next month.

      Then, if the Church is so minded, the appropriate processes need to be begun to enable marrying those who are divorced – with a change to our formularies or a new formulary. Again, it will be interesting to compare the process to that which the Church has undertaken for homosexuals.

      As to what will happen to clergy who, meanwhile, marry divorcees – they are at the same risk as any who breach of our vowed and signed agreements. But let us never forget that, in relation to homosexuality, clergy have lost their bishop’s licence.

      Easter Season Greetings.

  5. Wynston Cooper

    “I was surprised that a canon could limit a formulary.” Surely a canon equates to a Statute and a formulary to a Regulation. If so, then the latter must not depart from the content/principles of the former – ask any lawyer if you need ‘expert’ confirmation of this.

    1. Thanks, Wynston.

      I think your analogy is unhelpful and confusing, so much so that I think you have your own correlation back to front.

      The marriage formularies need a lengthy process to alter (as I describe in my post). They express the doctrine and practice of the Church. The Marriage Canon could be changed at one sitting of GSTHW (next month) on a simple majority vote. So 2.6 and 2.9 can be removed this May. The Marriage Canon can limit a marriage formulary – for example, we cannot use a marriage formulary to marry a woman to her stepfather. This information is not in the formulary but in the canon.

      I hope that helps.

      Easter Season Blessings.

        1. Wynston Cooper

          Forgot to add:
          Canon = ‘a Church decree or law’.
          Formulary = ‘a collection of set forms, especially for use in religious ceremonies’
          Both definitions from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary.

  6. Hi Bosco
    Thanks for all your blogs regarding AWF. Good grist to the mill as we prepare for GSTHW 2016.

    One thing that forcibly struck me in this post is the substantially denser ontology underlying Archbishop Lesser’s words. They are in stark contrast to the highly reductionist tone of all of the discussion I have been listening to these past weeks as our Diocese has considered AWF, both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.

    I find it interesting to say the least that the opposing positions espoused by both sides lean operate out of the same underlying and to my mind fundamentally weak ontology. Put another way, they’re saying the opposite things using the same words in the same language . . . hey ho . . .

    My apologies, but I am rather time limited at present and won’t be able to flesh this out further. But once again, many thanks


    1. Thanks, Eric. If you do “flesh this out further” (a great metaphor in the context of thinking about sex) – say on your own site – do put a pointer to that here. I very often find (not just in this case) two positions opposing but from essentially the same (weak) foundations. Easter Season Blessings.

  7. Is it your sense, Bosco, that the church deliberately chose to ignore its required procedure, or that it inadvertently ignored it?

    The Anglican Church of Canada’s General Synod made a deliberate decision to ignore its own rules when it formally admitted baptized (but not confirmed) infants and children to the Eucharist in the 1980s. Following the rules would have required a revision of the 1962 Book of Common Prayer, which retains the traditional requirement for Confirmation. No one could face BCP revision at that stage (or since), so we have two contradictory laws on this matter. I actually welcome that: in a period of radical development and experimentation, it’s perhaps not unhelpful to have the old discipline still on the books, while a new discipline is pursued “contra legem.” It makes possible either a future reversal or (more likely) a better formal revision of the standing law when that becomes possible. But this was a conscious (if dodgy) choice, not a slapdash one.

    Your point about the double standard is, of course, entirely correct. Some of the more learned advocates of the traditional teaching on sexuality have recognized this and urged a return to stricter disciplines around divorce (e.g. the late Peter Toon: http://anglicancontinuum.blogspot.ca/2007/11/partners-in-crime.html). We have become very familiar with the argument that “if we can change on divorce, then we can change on the sex of the spouses.” There seems to be no question that, canonically, we can do whatever we agree to do! But it would be interesting to hear an argument from a learned advocate for same-sex marriage that argued instead for increased strictness on divorce, for both heterosexual and homosexual spouses. The two issues are not at all linked theologically. Marriage is marriage is marriage. If marriages cannot be dissolved in the eyes of God, and a same-sex couple can be married, then their union cannot be dissolved.

    But the double standard is perhaps easy to understand. Notwithstanding a much higher bar to divorce previously, Christians have been marrying and divorcing (under one name or another) and remarrying for centuries. (At least the rich ones, who had access to ecclesiastical dispensations.) There was no question that the marriages they were entering into were at least theoretically possible. But an opponent of same-sex marriage considers such unions to be theoretically impossible, and can accept no comparison with divorce except on the level of “Well, we don’t do what the Bible says on this issue, so we don’t have to do what it says on this one either,” which is a kind of mirror-image fundamentalism.

    Canon law and moral theology are uneasy bedfellows…

    1. Thanks, Jesse. It would make for an interesting thesis, but my sense (being no expert in this area, just reading through the linked General Synod Proceedings) is that our Church inadvertently ignored the required procedure. The thesis I suggest would explore it more deeply, but my non-expert sense is that had the Church in 1970 followed the required procedure it would have passed with no issue and we would have, by 1973, been allowed to marry divorced people.

      I think that for me to suggest that they deliberately chose to ignore proper procedure (because they could foresee that it would fail, for example) would be to ascribe an unacceptable level of deceit to church leadership of that day.

      We are, however, after this blog post, now in a different place IMO. Current church leadership needs to ascertain if we are, in fact, in breach of our own proper procedure as I suggest. If we are, the meeting of GSTHW next month could remove 2.6 & 2.9 from our Marriage Canon and begin the appropriate procedure to bring our regulations into line with our current practice. Knowingly not to proceed in this manner at this particular juncture would take more obfuscation than is acceptable IMO.

      Yes, there are people I know (homosexual and heterosexual) who would affirm blessing (and marrying) committed same-sex couples and increasing strictness on marrying divorced people (for both heterosexuals and homosexuals). As you say, it would be good to see learned work on this.

      Easter Season Blessings.

  8. ” The State recognises clergy as marriage celebrants, and the State recognises the ability to officiate at marriages where someone is divorced. The State would, similarly, recognise the marriages of same-sex couples who were married by Anglican clergy.”
    – Fr. Bosco Peters –

    Bosco, I am more interested in moving forward than backwards on both of these issues; 1. the ability of the Church to marry divorcees who regret the breakdown of their former marriage. 2. ditto for those in Same-Sex monogamous relationship who have been married accroding to State Law.

    I see Peter (C)’s concurrence with a reversion to Church polity in not marrying divorcees, because it would align itself with his desire to not bless the legal marriage of Same-Sex couples.

    One thing that woiuld worry me is the fate of those couples – already re-married under the current (if illicit) Church Law by the Church. Mind you, this is also a worry for me about the Church’s view of the status of already legally re-marriage divorcees.

    (I might say that, as a parish priest, I would not marry divorced persons – unless they were able to convinvce me of their penitence at their share in the failure of their former marriage. I do, however, believe that God is in the business of raising up people from the dereliction of a failed marriage relationship – on the basis of God’s forgiveness and mercy)

    1. I’m struggling to understand your “worry” in your penultimate paragraph. The point of the paragraph of mine that you quote is that there is nothing to worry about. Easter Season Blessings.

  9. Dear Bosco, perhaps my sub-penultimate para. was clumsily phrased. What I would worry about is the possibility of the Church suddely reverting to the (seemingly, still extant) rule of no re-marriage of divorcees. This would then give FoCA-devotees the excuse not to Bless SamSex legally-married couples.
    Agape, Fr. Ron

    1. Thanks, Fr Ron.

      One of my refrains has been – why the so-different treatment of the majority (heterosexuals) from the minority (homosexuals)? That the Church has not even bothered to follow our own agreed proper process in relation to marrying divorced heterosexuals but has endlessly procrastinated when it comes to committed same-sex couples only serves to underline my refrain.

      So the church cannot “suddenly revert” to not marrying divorcees. People can choose to not marry them (we have that conscience clause for any marriage); people can continue to break the rule; the Church can begin the process of allowing clergy to marry divorcees.

      Whatever the outcome, what you call “FoCA-devotees” will have the conscience clause “not to Bless SamSex legally-married couples”.

      Even should the Way Forward proposal go through, in four or so years time, when dioceses vote whether they will implement it diocese by diocese, my hunch would be that you still will not be able to do this in many of our dioceses.

      Easter Season Blessings.

  10. Hi Bosco, just a quick thought on a side issue brought up in your post for now.

    Though first, I want to thank you for raising this issue of divorce and pushing it as it has (t least for me) been a driver to much deeper research on divorce (especially in the NT Scriptures, but to some extent in ACANZP Church history, which I am a mere dabbler in at best). It takes me a long time to get through these things (I think slowly and have time sparsely – does that make me like the wider Anglican church?). And also I want to say I think you have a point about the legality of the divorce thing, and am thinking (at least at this stage in my thought) that we need a serious relook at it one way or another – which I think would be a very good thing.

    But the point I will make for now is that Lesser was actually a little more vague than I think you may imply. The part you quoted is in the context of a section of his speech where he briefly outlines concerns both sides of the debate reasonably well. It does seem to me, as you say, that he inclines to the traditional position with the way he finishes that speech. Yet he is very careful to present both sides evenly (something we could all learn from), and is not entirely clear as to where he stands.
    This is reinforced for me in his speech in 1970 regarding the Bil (said Bill being brought forth in exactly the same form as in 1968), where he says this:
    “There will, of necessity, prove to be opposition to the Bill, but there will also be support from those who are favourably disposed, regarding the Bill as being consistent with the needs of our day, and yet not disregarding the essentials of our Lord’s teaching.”
    He doesn’t commit himself to either side – and on balance I think he probably was not in favour of change (you may know more about his convictions on this than I do) – but he did not take a strong and clear position either way, and in the course of the two speeches on the two occasions presented good reasons for going in either direction.

    A side point indeed, but worth noting I thought. And worth considering in terms of the wider reasons he gave for change and their legitimacy or not. Doesn’t change the issue you raise regards the legality/propriety of the process that was (I assume accidentally) gone through. Although to be fair it seems to me from looking at the 1968, 1970, and 1972 Proceedings that there was a lot of deliberation entered into, caution taken, and it was at that stage by no means a new issue.

    (On the last point re it not being a new issue, but rather one that had been in the works for a long time, see for example the Abp address of 1937 [p29-32, esp p30, of those Proceedings] and the later motions [p57], which for the first time endorse an earlier statement of the Bishops, and calls for a setting up of a commission to explore the issue of Divorce, specifically on the basis of whether the exception in Matthew has any bearing on the church’s understanding of divorce, partly in response to a 1922 Lambeth resolution which left the door open on precisely those grounds.)

    1. I should say – my point about caution etc taken doesn’t remove the legality issue you rightly raise – it is just an attempt to be fair to the wider picture as to them taking the issue very seriously indeed..

      1. Bosco Peters

        Thanks, Chris.

        If we are looking for a wider picture, I suggest you widen the focus a few degrees further and ask: why is it that no one, until my pointing it out, has noted that our Church has not followed our agreed process to allow us to bless unions with a heterosexual divorcee? If agreed process is not followed to allow us to bless the union of a same-sex couple, I assure you that would be spotted immediately.


    2. Bosco Peters

      Thanks, Chris.

      I want to repeat the point I made central to this point that you also allude to: “The point is, lest the wood be lost for the trees, that this is not a thread debating whether Christians can marry after divorce. This is about the way that this Church dealt with the conviction that this is possible.”

      Archbishop Norman Lesser’s personal attitude to divorce and remarriage may be an interesting tree to have a debate about, especially for a historian or someone working on his biography, but it makes not an iota of a difference to my primary point: our Church has not followed the agreed procedure to allow us to marry divorcees; formally, therefore, we cannot marry divorcees; if we, as a Church, agree that we want to be able to marry divorcees then we need to set in motion the agreed process to enable us to do so.

      If you proposed a motion at our diocesan synod that our Church begin the process of changing our formularies so that we be allowed to bless/marry the union of a couple with one or both being divorced then I would be prepared to second your motion.

      Easter Season Greetings.

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